Monday, February 25, 2019

Richard Baxter on the Autographs and Textual Criticism

Richard Baxter (1615–1691) is one of the most famous of the English Puritans. He was a “church leader, poet, hymnodist, theologian, and controversialist” per Wikipedia (yes, that Wikipedia). Continuing my interest in Reformation theology and textual criticism, here are a few choice quotes from his voluminous writings that touch on textual criticism.
And though the weakness and negligence of scribes have made many little words uncertain, (for God promised not infallibility to every scribe or printer,) yet these are not such as alter any article of faith or practice, but show that no corruption hath been designedly made, but that the book is the same. —The Catechising of Families, ch. 6, Question 24, Answer 7 in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, vol. 4
[Before this he gives a list of true beliefs that a person can doubt and still be saved.] 25. And yet more, may those have saving faith, who only doubt whether Providence infallibly guided any transcribers, or printers, as to retain any copy that perfectly agreeth with the autograph: yea, whether the perfectest copy now extant may not have some inconsiderable literal or verbal errors, through the transcribers’ or printers’ oversight, is of no great moment, as long as it is certain, that the Scriptures are not de industria [intentionally] corrupted, nor any material doctrine, history, or prophecy thereby obscured or depraved. God hath not engaged himself to direct every printer to the world’s end, to do his work without any error. Yet it is unlikely that this should deprave all copies, or leave us uncertain wholly of the right reading, especially since copies were multiplied, because it is unlikely that all transcribers, or printers, will commit the very same error. We know the true copies of our statute books, though the printer be not guided by an unerring spirit. See Usher’s Epistle to Lud. Capell. 26. Yet do all, or most of these [people], in my judgment, cast away a singular prop to their faith, and lay it open to dangerous assaults, and doubt of that which is a certain truth.  27. As the translations are no further Scripture, than they agree with the copies in the original tongues; so neither are those copies further than they agree with the autographs, or original copies, or with some copies perused and approved by the apostles. 28. Yet is there not the like necessity of having the autographs to try the transcripts by, as there is of having the original transcripts to try the translations by. For there is an impossibility that any translation should perfectly express the sense of the original. But there is a possibility, probability, and facility, of true transcribing, and grounds to prove it true, de facto, as we shall touch anon. —The Saints’ Everlasting Rest in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, 4 vols. (1846; Morgan, Pa., 2000), 3:93
Richard Brash, in his ThM thesis on the doctrine of preservation, says of this second quote, “Clearly, some in Baxter’s day did hold to such a view [viz., that Providence did not preserve any perfect copies], but it was not one that Baxter accepted or promoted” (p. 75 n. 242).

I’m not so sure. Baxter seems to leave the door cracked when he says that “all, or most of these” people lose a singular prop to their faith. When read along with the first quote above, it seems more likely that Baxter actually puts himself in the category of those who doubt that Providence infallibly guided all the transcribers and printers. At least he seems more comfortable with this view than with the others he lists before it.

What’s definitely not clear to me is how Baxter would prove the “possibility, probability, and facility, of true transcribing.” The next part of the Everlasting Rest is mainly about discerning which parts of Scripture give true doctrine (like the 10 commandments) and which record false doctrine (like Job’s friends’ speeches). We don’t get anything that I can see about recognizing true transcribing. J. V. Fesko says that “Baxter’s point is that although original infallible manuscripts had been lost, scholars could nevertheless approach the extant copies by doing textual-critical work” (p. 460). But Fesko doesn’t give any more detail. Here I think Brash is right to push back on Fesko a bit in that “It is not correct to argue that the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox accepted the principles of textual criticism in a modern sense” (ibid.; Fesko, I should add, pretty much says the same in his conclusion.) Still, if one of our readers knows, or sees something about this that I’m missing, do share it in the comments.

Beyond this point, I find it interesting how Baxter relates the authority of translations and copies to their particular sources. He says both are alike Scripture only insofar as they are faithful to their sources. But then he adds that we don’t need the autographs by which to check the transcripts in the same way we need the original language copies by which we test the translations. The reason is that transcripts can be faithful to their sources in a way that translations, by their nature, can’t be. But, as I said, I don’t see where he tells us how to prove true transcription.

In any case, we see Baxter here again showing that textual variants are not a threat to Biblical authority so long as no “material doctrine, history, or prophecy [is] thereby obscured or depraved.” In this, he is similar to what we saw in his contemporary James Ussher who, of course, Baxter cites explicitly here.

Update (2/26/19)

Some further digging in Baxter turned up these others pertinent quotes.

In his book on Knowledge and Love Compared, he has a chapter on uncertain things that we shouldn’t pretend that we know with certainty. In part 16 of this chapter, he discusses uncertainties in Scripture.
I. Many hundred texts are uncertain, through various readings in several copies of the original. I will not multiply them on Capellus’s opinion ; though Claud. Saravius, who got the book printed, and other worthy men approve it. I had rather there were fewer varieties, and therefore had rather think there are fewer; but these that cannot be denied must not be denied : nor do I think it fit to gather the discrepancies Of every Odd copy, and call them various readings. But it is past denial, that the world hath no one ancient copy which must be the rule or test of all the rest, and that very many copies are of such equal credit, as that no man living can say that this, and not that where they differ hath the very words of the Holy Ghost. And that even in the New Testament alone, the differences or various readings, of which no man is able to say which is the right, are so great a number I am not willing to give every reader an account of; even those that are gathered by Stephanus and Junius, and Brugensis, and Beza; if you leave out all the rest in the Appendix to the Polyglot Bible. In all or most of which we are utterly uncertain which reading is God’s Word.
And then later he says,
XVI. There are so many seeming differences in Scripture, especially about numbers, as that if they be reconcileable, few or none in the world have yet found out the way. If we mention them not ourselves, such paltry fellows will do it, as Bened. Spinosa in his Tractatus Theolog. Polit. I will not cite any, but desire the learned reader to consider well of what that learned and godly man, Ludov. Capellus saith in his critic. Sacr. 1. c. 10. and 1. 6. c. 7, 8h. (l own not his supposition of a better Hebrew copy used by the Sept.) I think an impartial considerer of his instances will confess, that as God never promised all or any of the scribes or printers of the Bible any infallible spirit, that they should never write or print a word falsely, and as it is certain by the various lections, that many such there have been in many and most books; so there is no one scribe that had a promise above the rest, nor any one Hebrew or Greek copy, which any man is sure, is absolutely free from such miswritings. For how should we be sure of that one above all the rest? And I wish the learned reader to consider Bibliander’s Preface to his Hebr. Grammar, and Casaubon’s Exercit. 1. s. 28. and Pellicanus’s Preface to his Comment. on the Bible. Jerom on Mic. 5.2. is too gross, de Matth. 2. ‘Quod Testimonium nec Hæbraico nec 70 Interpretibus convenire, &c.’ Let him read the rest that will, which is harsher ; he that will not confess miswritings of numbers, and some names and words heretofore, as well as some misprintings now, doth but by his pretended certainty tempt men to question the rest for the sake of that, and injureth the sacred word.
In another work which is a response to an anonymous letter charging the Scripture with contradiction title “More Reasons for the Christian Religion,” Baxter discusses the all-or-nothing argument regarding the Bible’s truth. Baxter defends the view that we must take all God’s words as true or none of them. But then he goes on to argue that it’s possible to believe that and still believe that even though we can’t prove “every word or particle of Scripture to be God’s word and so be true.” In other words, the issue is not about the truth of the Bible so much as about our ability to prove its truth beyond all doubt. In that context, he mentions variants as one place where certainty may elude us:
Twelfthly, some think, that as certainly there a great number of various readings, which all prove that some of the copies err; so it is uncertain to to us whether all those which we have, may not in some words or particles differ from others which we have not, and from the autographs, seeing each scribe had not a promise of infallibility. 
This is part of his larger point that all of Scripture is true by virtue of being God’s Word but that doesn’t mean that every part is equally understandable to us. So he says later in the same work that
Sixthly, All God’s word being equally true and infallible, the belief of it is also equally true and infallible. But being not all equally intelligible, evident, (to be his word,) and necessary, the understanding and belief of every part is not equally easy, strong, past doubting, or necessary.
In summary, it seems pretty clear that Baxter was quite aware of variants and quite comfortable with not all of them being resolved.


  1. It also seems that Baxter did not hold a view of a "canonical text" that was deemed perfect on account of its having been received by the Church. For him, the right text is whatever was the original text. And even if we couldn't be sure at every little point what that original text was, Christians could tolerate those uncertainties without needing them to be resolved by some ecclesiastical fiat.

    1. Those of who hold to the Canonical Text are not claiming absolute certainty of autographic fidelity. Rather, we claim with the Reformed orthodox of the 16th and 17th centuries that preservation has assured the text we possess is infallible.

      "It is important to note that the Reformed orthodox insistence on the identification of the Hebrew and Greek texts as alone authentic does not demand direct reference to autographa in those languages; the "original and authentic text" of Scripture means, beyond the autograph copies, the legitimate tradition of Hebrew and Greek apographa. The case for Scripture as an infallible rule of faith and practice and the separate arguments for a received text free from major (i.e., non-scribal) errors rests on an examination of apographa and does not seek the infinite regress of the lost autographa as a prop for textual infallibility. The central issue for the orthodox was the establishment of an authentic and accurate text of the Hebrew and Greek originals, despite the loss of the autographa."

      Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology by Richard Muller (p. 433)

    2. Timothy Joseph4/09/2019 10:01 pm

      The issue is not whether the autographs must be available, because they are not! The question is whether we rely on the apographa that best represent the autographic text or a text that is chosen based on its use over the years. I for one believe that we do have the infallible text in our possession among the apographa, but this leads me to desire to find among the manuscripts that infallible Text.

  2. Baxter's view on CJ and PA is of interest.
    In his Paraphrase on the NT, he wrote on the CJ: "Though much of these Words, Vers. 7,8, be not in many ancient Copies of the Bible we have more reason to think that the Arrians left them put, than that the Orthodox put them in ... . But however, it need not offend the Faithful, there being so many others Texts which affert the Trinity."
    Remarkably, Baxter has more doubts on the PA:
    Ad vs 3: " {PA not in mss, Fathers"; Beza's view} ... So that is uncertain to us, whether it be any part of God's word: But we have enough besides of which we may be certain. Suppose the Text is currant ..."
    Ad vs 8,9: "It is so improbable that Christ should be left alone in the Temple, that this increaseth Beza's suspicion that it is Apocryphal: But if it be true ...
    Ad vs 10, 11: Those that hence take encouragement to connive at adultery, must note, 1. That the text is of uncertain authority. 2. If it were certain, ..."
    Ad vs 12: "Here begins the certain Text."